Howard Baker's "Victory" at the Shaw Festival
This kick ass gorgeous production of this amazing play is the highlight of the season!
By ANTHONY CHASE
Every time a character walks onto the stage in Howard Barker’s play, Victory, his or her status hangs in the balance. Sometimes the stakes are life and death; sometimes merely respect and humiliation; but every scene is a negotiation for power over one’s life. And oh, how the defeated will be degraded at every turn!
Welcome to the tumultuous world of Barker’s remarkable 1983 play now running at the Shaw Festival, in an extraordinary production directed by Tim Carroll. This is England of the 1660s, the time of the Restoration.
From textbooks, we know that this was a period of fun and hijinks with ribald comedies of manners on the stage and the Merry Monarch, Charles II, on the throne. This was a time when men wore long curly wigs and professionally beautiful women gossiped with clever viciousness. Charles fathered a dozen children with seven mistresses, but none with his wife. Fun! Fun! Fun!
What your textbook probably failed to mention is that the aristocracy, newly returned to England from forced exile in France after the overthrow and beheading of King Charles I, seized this opportunity to exact brutal vengeance on those who had ousted them in the first place. Yes, there was a general amnesty, but this excluded the fifty-six men who had signed the king’s death warrant. As much as it was a time of Restoration, this was a time of Retribution.
If Cromwell had been brutal, the restored aristocrats would match him, blow for blow. The siege of revenge went so far as to include digging up the bodies of those signatories who had died before the Restoration. After bodies were exhumed and put in chains, the heads of the corpses were chopped off, placed on spikes, and displayed in public until they dropped.
True story! Samuel Pepys wrote about it in his diary!
The most famous head that Pepys saw atop a pike in 1661 was Oliver Cromwell’s, but Barker’s play follows a less familiar direction. Indeed, familiarity with the key figures of the English Civil War might add amusement to your experience, but it is all rather irrelevant to the intriguing delights of this play. Barker begins with the morbid historical facts, but he uses them in surprising ways to spin out a horrible and imaginative tale. In Barker's story, the widow of John Bradshaw, the judge who condemned the former king, sets out to retrieve her husband's body, piece by piece, after its public desecration.
We embark on a harrowing journey through a world in flux. Those who were mighty are now struck low, and vice versa. The upright widow of the once powerful Puritan judge will compromise her once rigid Christian morals. Christian will swindle Christian. King will humiliate mistress. Bankers will humiliate king. Any person who can take advantage of another person will do it.
The Shaw Festival production luxuriates in the play’s profane language and in its perverse events. We are invited into a world in which one dare not flinch. Every human desire and emotion will be used to manipulate advantage: greed, lust, pride, ambition, hunger, loyalty, fear.
The remarkable Martha Burns plays the widow Bradshaw with flint and steady resolve. Here is a woman with a backbone of iron. She knowingly and deliberately sacrifices her values to achieve her higher goals. She endures and surmounts each escalating horror.
The piece makes remarkable use of the perfect Shaw Festival ensemble of actors who double in roles to populate London of the 1660s. Before our visit is over we will meet King Charles II. We will meet his favorite mistress, Nell Gwynn. We will meet poet John Milton. Each scene is a lesson in excellent script interpretation and acting as characters square off to gain advantage or divert disaster. We can almost hear Stanislavsky in the wings asking, "What does this character want?"
Tom McCamus is excellent as restored but diminished King Charles II, who lords brutal authority over his mistress, Devonshire, before her absence brings him to poetic submission. He must recalibrate anew when the lady becomes pregnant, and again when he must face the limits of his royal power. McCamus takes on the merry monarch’s excesses at full gallop which is both devilishly engaging and a powerful contrast to Burns’ portrayal of Bradshaw.
One of the great delights of the Shaw Festival is seeing great actors brilliantly assay small roles. Much of this cast was also in Shaw’s Man and Superman, or in Cyrano de Bergerac, and here are enlisted to invent a kaleidoscope of characters. It is delightful to see formidable Gray Powell, fabulous in Man and Superman, as the banker Hambro. Sara Topham, also in Man and Superman, is sublime as Devonshire, a woman whose only power is contained in her ability to catch, but sadly not hold the eye of a king. Deborah Hay is devilishly good in a variety of roles, particularly in a single scene as the kings’s vulgar mistress, Nell Gwynn. I adored Michael Man in a fast succession of contrasting roles and emotions. Tom Rooney as the cavalier, Ball, a raw nerve ending of man, gives a display of skillful sprezzatura as he manufactures the appearance of unbridled and uncensored lust. I am tempted to recount moment after delectable moment, spoiling the show for everyone, but unlike the characters in the play, who must be restrained by others, I will restrain myself.
What I have described might sound like untamable chaos, but Tim Carroll has taken a steady and astute hand in directing this clear and exquisitely paced production, which feeds off its design elements with graceful symbiosis. As the play begins, we are plunged into darkness before we see a gruesome skull on a spike. The effect is cinematic, which sets the tone. We are about to encounter a fast succession of episodes, each escalating the anxiety, as Bradshaw, King Charles, and an ominous cohort of bankers maneuver their way up and down and up and down. The production is designed by formidable Rachel Forbes with light by Kevin Lamotte.
For the final scene before the intermission, the entire audience is guided to a basement rehearsal room below the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre. This room, a confined and intimate space with a lower ceiling, serves as the basement vault of the Bank of England. The scene is performed by candlelight. The effect is spellbinding, but even the journey downstairs, as the audience is herded en masse, serves to highlight the themes of this play. We are all caught in the narrative of our history. We never really know where we are going. And yes, we might have choices, but only within a finite context, for often our fate is decided in secret by powerful people without our ever knowing.
A British playwright, Howard Barker has never really caught on in the United States. Victory did not have its New York debut until 2011 in a production starring the late Jan Maxwell as Bradshaw. After seeing the Shaw Festival production, such neglect is difficult to understand. The writing is irresistibly powerful (for me anyway), and undeniably original in its observations.
I hear that many members of the Shaw Festival audience found this play too raw and disturbing. “Not enough cocktails and cuff-links,” someone quipped to me. Those very qualities, handled with such finesse, are precisely what thrilled me. Indeed, this production was, for me, the highlight of the Shaw season and I urge any serious theater goer to make a special trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake just to see it.